Ben attends his first ever political party leadership polling event, and all hell breaks loose.
By Ben Bull
Published October 06, 2006
Ever the eager activist, I decided this past Saturday to help a friend of mine with his "Super Weekend" Liberal party leadership polling office duties.
Tim had asked me a couple of weeks back if I would be a returning officer for one of the east Scarborough ridings and, unable as I was to come up with a decent excuse in a hurry, I heard myself saying, "Sure. Sounds like fun."
Super Weekend is the Liberal party's first go-around in their efforts to find themselves a new leader. In a nutshell what happens is this:
Liberal party members cast two sets of votes. The first is for the leader. Based on the percentage of votes, each leadership contender gets a representative number of delegates to support the candidate at the Liberal party conference in Montreal this December.
The second vote is for the delegates, with 14 sent from each riding. Delegates are listed on a second ballot under the names of the leaders they have elected to support. Party members vote for the delegates they would like to send to Montreal to vote on their behalf.
Other than this, the election is pretty much like any other. People come in, flash their IDs, mark their ballots and cast their votes. Sounds simple, right? What could possibly go wrong? Hmm.
Tim and I pulled up at a quaint little community centre, tucked away at the side of a busy road in deepest, darkest Scarberia. It was a cloudy, rainy day - perfect for lying in bed and watching the full slate of English premiership soccer that Sportsnet had lined up for the afternoon. Ah well, Benny Boy. A promise is a promise.
Once inside, I was introduced to Bill, a Liberal party stalwart with a "Stop Harper" button on his jacket; Richard, an energetic Liberal party employee who clapped his hands a lot and kept telling us he was "very excited" (about what I'm not sure); and Jagpal, who hardly spoke a word of English and spent most of the day apologizing for no apparent reason.
My friend Tim is, by his own admission, a professional civil servant. This means he understands the necessity of inane procedures and rules for the sake of rules which he explained were the "engine of the political machine".
I, on the other hand, did not understand this, but I was about to learn.
This was my first polling station experience since a scruntineering stint at Lynda Lukasik's 2003 municipal election campaign in Hamilton. I got the sense back then that maybe the whole process was, well - kind of bullshit, but I was never entirely sure. Maybe today would help me decide.
For Tim, this was his first-ever ballot box buckaroo. As he was the Local Returning Officer, the main man for the whole shebang, he looked suitably thrilled, enthralled, and terrified by the adventures that lay ahead.
It didn't take long for things to go awry. No sooner had we started unpacking our election kits than Marjorie or Debbie or whatever-her-name was from the Liberal Party Refreshments Committee waltzed in and wanted to know where she could put her pot of coffee.
I pointed to the kitchen, which sent her into a tizzy and off towards the exit in search of the local MP who, she insisted, would "not be happy with these developments."
I poured myself a cup anyway. It was good.
Next up was a protracted discussion about how to arrange the tables and where to put the voting screens. Richard felt adamantly that we should put the voter check table to the left, and the Challenge table to the right, with the ballot boxes and screens at the back. Bill felt that the screens should be placed at the side.
Ben didn't care.
The hall was already staring to fill up. Why? We still had 45 minutes until the polls opened. Who the hell were these people? Tim made the wise executive decision to set up the tables in the back room. If nothing else, this would keep us away from the psychopathic refreshment committee members, who were now scowling at us from the corner.
We set up our gear and ran through the polling instructions. Tim delivered a rousing speech about how we were "representing the integrity of the Liberal Party" and "upholding their long-standing reputation". He told us to "be professional and diligent at all times."
The Liberal Party has integrity? I wondered to myself, and a reputation to uphold? Who knew?
No sooner had we shut ourselves in than the crowd of deranged hangers-on started banging on the door. It was like a zombie movie except with, er, Liberal party people instead of, well, zombies.
One by one they shuffled in, offering various suggestions on how to improve the "people flow" and making all sorts of ridiculous requests and complaints. There were scrutineers who had forgotten to complete their forms ahead of time; a local MP who just wanted to say "Hi!" and shake everybody's hand; and a Riding President who wanted to make sure "everything was in order."
All in all, an entirely useless assortment of ornamental oddballs, the kind I expect you get all the time at events such as this.
While all this was happening I found myself being introduced to all manner of strange people. One of the delegates came up to me, squeezed the blood from my hand, and gave me the coldest stare of my life. Could he smell my Tory roots?
As our 3:00 PM opening time loomed, the tension increased. Scrutineers took their seats, the handshaking stopped and we returning officers took our positions and prepared for battle. By 3:20 we were still in the trenches ("what's the green form for again?" "I really think we should move that table back over there..." "Did I mention I was very excited?") and the crowd was getting mighty thick. They were lined up out the door.
Eventually we got underway and soon settled into a groove. Photo-ID - check. On the list - check. Cross 'em off - check. Sign the forms - check. "Next, please!"
We were one smooth machine, but not surprisingly, before long, the gears started to slip again.
A sweet little old lady who told me she had been a Liberal Party member all her life showed me her face by means of identification.
"Erm, that's nice," I said, politely, "but do you have any Photo ID?"
She flipped, started waving her arms and shouting: "I've been a Liberal Party member all my life!"
I had to "challenge" the poor old dear, which meant sending her over to another table where she had to provide more ID and basically try not to act too suspicious.
The whole experience was clearly dreadfully embarrassing for the poor love, as she felt the need to complain to the local MP, who was still wandering around saying, "Hi!"
He stormed and demanded, "What the hell is going on?"
A similar fuss ensued whenever a senior party member was challenged. By the time "The Mayor" (the Mayor of where, I wondered) was ushered to the front of the line, I began to understand that in Liberal party circles, some animals are clearly more equal than others.
After a few hours of this, the scrutineers began ganging up on us, too. Perhaps they felt left out. A Kennedy rep asked us to confiscate all campaign materials from people's possession. A fair request, except he even included those innocuous bits of green paper that contained the names of the delegates to be selected for each particular candidate.
Yeah, right. Better not wave those around.
Finally, with the tension well and truly ratcheted up the serious challenges started to come in.
"The dates don't match," declared one scrutineer, referring to a family of voters whose party memberships were suspiciously new. I had to sit on the ballot boxes for five minutes while we sorted this out.
It was a tense little stand-off. The old granny looked especially shifty as she waddled around searching for somewhere to sit. I pretended I was Kevin Costner from "The Bodyguard" to keep myself amused.
What is she up to? She looks like she's readying herself for a ... a desperate lunge at the ballot box!
Stand back, lady!
And that young girl? The one with the umbrella - what is that tucked away in her hand? It looks like one of those banned bits of green paper!
Not on my watch, lady!
"You can unwrap the police tape from the ballot boxes now. We're good to go."
Tim had sensibly declined the scrutineer's challenge, on the basis that it was frivolous, unfounded, and, well, pretty much bullshit - and I was back to reality once again.
The altercation was helped along by the affable MP, who had stormed in halfway through, once again demanding, "What the hell is going on?"
Where would we be without Parliamentarians?
Things slowed down a little after that. I chatted with my fellow DSOs about the whole democratic process.
"Why is all this so complicated?" I asked Richard, who was, after all, responsible for the whole thing. Surprisingly he agreed with me, explaining that if he had his way, there would be one vote for a leader and that would be that. Another helper joined our ranks and tried to persuade us that we couldn't do this by computer.
"It's too risky," he contended.
"Yeah, like this process isn't open to fraud."
More than that, I felt that despite being wholly unpleasant - the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion was intolerably thick - the process was just too complicated. It seemed there was more than an average risk that people would get their vote wrong simply because they didn't understand the rules.
The second ballot alone contained numerous instructions on how to properly distribute the vote (the Liberal party requires members to spread their delegate votes evenly among young, senior, adult, male, female and aboriginal delegates) and the writing was clearly way too small for many of the elderly voters.
As Tim explained, "It's a process designed by committee."
As closing time approached, another challenge came in. One of the scrutineers claimed that ten party members were "invalid" and shouldn't have been put on the list. They had all voted. Had his challenge been accepted (it wasn't) this would have put the entire vote count in jeopardy.
I had to go. As I drove home I contemplate the prospect of the whole vote - my entire day - being wasted, of having to do this whole thing again.
It seemed to me that as well as simplifying the process and putting it onto computer, we needed to find a way to link each vote to a voter. That way, if an illegal vote is cast, or can't be properly interpreted (remember those chads), the system can rectify it.
Tim called me the next day and gave me the results for our station. Kennedy cleaned up. The count itself didn't go too smoothly, however. Tim explained that after an hour or so a bloke came around to close up the centre, so Tim and about another four carloads of Liberal party wonks spent the next half hour driving around Scarborough looking for somewhere else to count.
By midnight, the gig was up and the delegates in attendance, upon learning that they would indeed be attending the conference after all, lightened up considerably, and even thanked the volunteers for their efforts.
Looking back, I have to say I found the whole experience to be a fascinating insight into human nature. The process was unwieldy, the tension unbearable, the party wonks intolerable and the gratitude virtually non-existent - but all in all I had a lot of fun.
Democracy may not be perfect, and I'm convinced we could do the whole polling thing a heck of a lot better, but hey - this is our democracy and it's all we've got for now.
I'm looking forward to the Liberal Party conference in December. That's when the real fun begins.
1 Not his real name. As I was not on official RTH press business, I decided to change the names to protect the innocent. All other details are accurate, however, to the best of my recollection.
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